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Becoming Your Client's Voice

Client's Voice

A Creative Cow Business & Marketing Report

http://www.creativecow.net/articles/kolb_tim/voice
Creative Cow's Tim Kolb
explores the concept of 'voice'
-- not the narrator's voice
but the actual tone in which people
and organizations communicate
and how to best relay their own
corporate 'personality' to better
convey your message.


by Tim Kolb
Kolb Productions,
Appleton, Wisconsin USA

©2001-2006 Tim Kolb. All Rights Reserved.
Used at CreativeCow.net by kind permission.




A concept that gets overlooked too often these days is the whole idea of "voice." I'm not referring to narration here. I'm talking about the "tone" in which people and organizations communicate. Every person and company has a sort of personality which (ideally) should be present, if not always overtly, in its messages.

If you don't believe this is the case, let's flip the idea upside down. Most of us have seen the spoofed commercials on NBC's Saturday Night Live. What makes these things so hilarious? Many people are actually fooled for the first few seconds into believing that is an actual commercial. That's because they are usually utilizing a familiar "voice" that we've heard on actual commercials. Again, I'm not referring to the actual narrator's voice, but more the method of delivery and the visual style of the images. Most of the actual premises are juvenile and absurd. What makes them funny is the completely credible way the spot comes across.

An example is the very authentic-feeling "National Change Bank" spot. This spot was a spoof of a very similar spot done for a large bank with the people of the bank professing how important customers and their needs are to them. The interviews are softly, but very directionally lit to give a very intimate feel. The original, legitimate spot was designed to make you feel protected and even befriended by the advertising bank. Of course, in the Saturday Night Live spot, the bank strictly changes the money into different denominations for you. I recall one interview answer that went something like this, "All our customers needs are different. When someone asks me for change for a dollar, I can give you four quarters, I can give you ten dimes or twenty nickels, or five dimes and ten nickels, or a quarter, three dimes, eight nickels and five pennies, we know life is unpredictable, and we want to be there for you." When asked the inevitable question of how they can do such a thing and stay in business with such a narrow and decidedly profit-lacking specialty, the "Vice President" type points to "One word..... volume." The premise is so nonsensical that without the presentation wrapped around it, would it even be funny?

The list continues with spots like the conservative investment firm that waited a bit too long to register a domain name and therefore was promoting their online investment site at "www.clownfart.com" and the fiber-enhanced goodness of "Colon Blow" breakfast cereal are also great examples of mismatching "voice" and message to produce something absolutely absurd and (hopefully) humorous.

In most cases, our clients charge us with a more conventional task. It may be training new staff members or developing a recruiting aid or creating a product sales piece that has to not only present the product or service in a favorable and desirable light, but has to do the same for the company. Mismatching the "voice" and message for most of us, would be a disaster in corporate communication.

So what do we mean by "voice."

Actually, many organizations have a different voice depending on the intended receiver. Most companies have one way they relate to employees and a slightly different way they relate to customers. For instance, company XYZ probably won't approach their customers with a "We need to focus on profits" kind of tone, even in the background. Customers don't want their suppliers to lose money in most cases, but the profit message might make them wonder if they are paying too much, not to mention that message serves no purpose in the customer's communications with the company. When communicating with employees in bulletins or training materials however, the message of profitability is valuable to demonstrate why employees must be efficient and not waste company resources and time in order to preserve the company's existence and therefore the employee's jobs.

On the other hand, most companies wouldn't want to communicate with their employees with a feeling of "we'll bend over backwards to make everything right for you." While most companies want to take care of their employees of course, they don't want to send the message that they are more flexible than would be logistically possible considering the requirements of operating their business. On the other hand, that message is what customers in this day and age want to hear. Customers want to know that a vendor is ready to meet their unique requirements to earn their business.

We have one client who I think actually perfected the corporate "voice" to the point of being able to use it both internally and externally. Their creed was "A win for the customer, a win for the employees, and a win for the company." This message plays well with customers of course, because their win comes first in the order of presentation. This is designed to make the customer feel important and high-priority. By communicating with employees on the realities of business, the company can certainly illustrate why the customer's win is first. The customer pays the bills! Ideally then, the employee looks at the statement and while understanding that the customer's win is before theirs, the employee's win comes before the company's win. The employees can feel that they are valued as well because the company puts them ahead of itself in the equation. Of course, while the organization itself would seem to be placing its own needs at the bottom of the stack, it actually serves itself very well because if your customer's needs are met and your employee's needs are met, chances are the company will prosper as a direct result.

The voices of different companies that communicate directly with consumers can be extremely diverse, even when comparing companies that serve the same basic market. Think of the messages you receive everyday. In investment advertising in the U.S., a long established investment firm's commercials may have images of confident, responsible-looking folks watching over your money while an upstart web trading company's spot features a 19-year old with a punk haircut who makes copies of his rear in the office copier. These two company's "customer" voices are different by virtue of their very different market profile within the same market.

When faced with these kinds of situations, you may have to determine not only what the client's desired voice is, but what its perceived voice or position is relative to competitors and find a way to capitalize on it.

For instance, Bank #1 is the long established, extremely traditional, big, immovable fortress that competently guards your money, investing it conservatively and giving you dog biscuits for your terrier at the drive-through, while Bank #2 opened for business last year, has no traditional retail "building" and is on the web and is shopping loans for customers and doing transactions online because they're the innovators, unlike traditional banks, who are "behind the times and ripping customers off for high fees in their palatial buildings which they were able to build by over-charging their customers in the first place."

What if you're making an employee recruiting piece for Bank #1? What's the main principle that ties all the parts of the message together? "Hi, we're the stodgy, crusty, behind-the-times, soon to falter from not keeping up with technology bank....won't you join our team?" Obviously this concept might work in the spoof version on late-night television, but your customer needs something more useful. Bank #1's strong suits are probably a long tradition of stability and a tried-and-true way of doing business. The strength of being the large, established player in a market is undeniable. The web-embracing bank could be seen as an "upstart" or a risky place to hang your hat with the relative instability of the dot-coms these days.

Now, what if you're working for Bank #2? "Come sign on with the just-started, NASDAQ roller-coaster riding, changing organizational structure twice a week due to triple digit growth, gambling our very existence on the web, really small, but taking names and kicking butt bank." Probably not quite the half-full glass your client wants to be presenting to prospective employees, is it?. This client's real appeal to a prospective employee might be being part of the future and playing a part in changing an entire industry. Eventually more and more business will move in this direction, and with the crazy growth rates (not to mention the shrink rates) that web-dependent businesses go through, the excitement and challenge of being on the cutting edge are probably going to feature heavily in your message to prospective employees. Of course, in this case this "voice" does double-duty. While hopefully luring the proper type of employee who craves the challenges of such an organization, you would hopefully give people who would be poor candidates due to the lack of a desire to be involved in such insanity a clear idea that they need not apply.

Your client's organization can have all kinds of subtleties mixed into their "voice." Fastest order turnaround, best customer service, teamwork, paternalism, technical superiority, tradition, global product support, direct marketing, innovation, high product quality, competitive price, being large and established or being new and agile, (the list is endless...) can all figure in with varying proportion, to the client's "tone" of "voice."

So, how do I uncover the "voice" of a new client? The best way to accomplish this is to spend a little more time on the front end of the project to gather background information and get ahold of any published material the prospective client can offer you. Examples of how the client organization sees itself and its relative position in its marketplace should be evident in their communications material. You'll want to remember to ask the potential client what they DON'T like about the current materials they are handing you. No reason to repeat someone else's mistakes. Do all the investigating you can, all the information you can get is useful. Carefully examining existing materials has another benefit, it can provide a basic style model for your new message, and a production company who can make the new materials they produce dovetail successfully with the client's existing material will be a valued ally indeed.

We were called in to design an orientation program on video for a company that hadn't had very good luck with getting desired results from video production before that. We attended several meetings and eventually the writer and I actually went through the company's orientation process ourselves to get a handle on what ended up being a multi-national, multi-market, extremely diversified manufacturing organization. The client furnished us with a lot of material, including a copy of their corporate image video program which was actually never used due to the fact that, even after extensive effort (and cost) invested to try to rework it and make it effective and give the proper impression of the company, it never hit the mark. It never had the right "voice."

Almost all of the company's businesses were engaged in manufacturing that resulted in components for other products, or materials used in production or processing of other products. You could buy things in the store that was packaged in or labeled with, or assembled from the products that this company produced, but nothing they manufactured was a retail product. Their customers were other businesses (they were "B2B" or business-to-business).

I viewed the tape and was able to troubleshoot the approach. The shooting was good, the editing was fine, but I was struck by the fact that this company on the tape did not seem to be very similar to the company I had been meeting with. The difference was in the approach to how the company was visualized. The video concentrated on all the public or retail appearances of the various components the company made. You would see a woman buying a colorful, plastic bottle of detergent without any indication from the narrator that the client company actually only made the bottle. It was very confusing to watch. The imagery was very fast and colorful and shallow. Lots of action and fluff, which tends to be effective when used with retail audiences, tends to miss the mark with prospective employees and prospective "B2B" clients.

Sometimes you will find that the client isn't even sure about their identity or "voice." This will definitely create some confusion, but don't give up. Without a resolution to the question of personality or "voice" for a project, your prospects for client satisfaction drop dramatically.

There are elements of "voice" that you want to develop specifically for the project itself. When producing sales or marketing materials, in addition to listening to the client's description of what makes their company great, you HAVE to ask what your customer's customer is looking for in a product or supplier of this type. That should be your focus. Sometimes this can lead to some tough questions. When we are called upon to create a selling tool for a new client, we never leave an initial meeting without asking, "What would the customers who you have had and lost or potential customers pursued and lost, say is wrong with your company or product? What is their reason for not buying it?" usually the first emotion that results from that question is "How dare you barge in here and speak such blasphemy!" After about five seconds however, most committees or individual client contacts we work with realize they can't answer that question as well as they'd like, or perhaps as they should.

In case you haven't realized it yet, we've been talking about the very stuff that makes producing a single piece of corporate programming that really serves both internal and external audiences, almost impossible. Many companies have the idea that since they are spending the money on a video, they can make "better use" of it if they create a training/orientation/sales/marketing show all in one. How can you truly connect with your employees if you have to limit the content of an orientation video to only information that can be shown outside the company? Why would a prospective client want to know that you have a comprehensive benefit package for your staff?

It all boils down to communication professionals doing what they get paid to do...successfully deliver a message. The rub is that sometimes successful message delivery is absolutely dependent on savvy and thoughtful message design. If you really consider it, you've probably always had a feel for the subtle factors that contribute to successful communication and therefore a successful project, but the care with which you manage those factors can give you a competitive edge. Ultimately, when you are producing a video, audio, or multimedia project that is used to represent your client's organization or product or service, you are "speaking" on their behalf. It only makes sense you would want to speak with their "voice."

-- Tim Kolb


Tim Kolb has spent 20 years in video production including television news and sixteen years as an independent producer in his own companies. Today, Kolb Productions focuses on corporate and commercial projects. Over the years, Tim has won multiple ITVA, Telly, American Advertising, and Emmy Award winner. He was also recently named one of the Top 200 Multimedia Producers in America by AV Video / Multimedia Producer Magazine.
Tim Kolb

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